Sunday, February 8, 2015

Stuck (Sort of) in the Middle with You and Almost Everyone Else: Thoughts About "Middle" at Gallery 72, Atlanta

The ordinary-seeming concept called “middle” is a major puzzle.

For one thing, no matter what the dictionary suggests, “middle” is often almost the opposite of “center.” The center is ordinarily a place of honor or at least of organization. Even in ordinary usage, one wouldn’t normally say that the sun is the middle of the solar system. In the history of religions, “Center” is a word to conjure with, even in Meister Eckhart’s (and/or others’) definition of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. “God is a Middle”? Not so much. Postmodern philosophy sought to decenter Eurocentrism; less disturbed by terms and operating assumptions that happened de facto to be in the middle of things.

The middle term of a syllogism gets a certain amount of can’t get from Point A to Point B without it. But in general, middle-ness is in-between-ness, a point midway on the way to somewhere else or from somewhere else. The middle is also, as is increasingly recognized, the midpoint in a gulf separating two established terms. There is a continuum, or a spectrum, but we don’t know that, not yet anyway: out there in the void that ought to be a bridge, comes the interstitial middle term.

So it makes sense, in an era celebrating neither-nor more than both-and, and the provisional more than the firmly established, that a show called “Middle” should have been mounted at Atlanta’s Gallery 72 courtesy of curator Candice Greathouse.

Unfortunately, as I just now implied, we are in a bit of a muddle over “middle.” I am not entirely sure that Greathouse’s show, which runs through February 15, has cleared up the issues of “inbetweenness and potentiality through material and process” that she says the show addresses.

That definition manages to narrow “middle” down a little. We are looking, we might think, at formalism, at the roots of provisional painting, perhaps. But we would be wrong in thinking that, or at least I think so.

For one thing, there is the almost grotesque marriage of Freud and Marx in the video gallery. Meta Gary’s Enterchange depicts the endless loop of earthmoving equipment in late capitalism’s ceaseless logic of demolition and development, as framed in the vaginal opening of a leftover piece of concrete, or more likely one that hasn’t been put in its place yet. Brittainy Lauback’s Hole keeps inserting digits or foamy materials into openings of one sort of another, never quite attaining a perfect match nor truly filling the unappeasable voidness. Patricia Villafane’s multiple-image video of Target and its target-shaped store logo (talk about a center versus a middle!) presents a different sort of unappeasable desire and irremediable deficiency, a process of exchange in which none of the parties can ever be completely satisfied even if the transaction is regarded as open and above reproach.

That leads us, logically I suppose, to Christina Price Washington’s Thoughts on the (excluded) Middle, in which a vague pictorial or non-pictorial image set well below eye level on a movable wall (we learn from her statement that this is a picture of a helium filled balloon) carries a great deal of conceptual and openly philosophical weight along with it. “The privileged position of the isolated photograph” is indeed “destabilized,” and we can’t help (or I can’t, anyway) but think of Max Nordau’s Luftmenschen, people left floating in air by the circumstances of modernity, people whom Rilke characterized in the Duineser Elegien as the “disinherited children to whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs”—humans perennially in between times and places. This isn’t, however, Price Washington’s major point, as she finds herself “exploring the photograph as the subject and the information in the making.”

This exploration places Price Washington’s work firmly in the middle between the Law of the Excluded Middle and the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle, the former being the assertion that a proposition is either true or not true, no other choices available, while the fallacy considers “only limited alternatives...while in fact there is at least one additional option.” (These definitions open to discussion, because Wikipedia.) One could argue productively, if hyperbolically, that in a world of spectra and continua the law of the excluded middle is always already the fallacy of the excluded middle.

That leaves us with Margaret Hiden’s and Trevor Reese’s mysteries, as well as a couple of other in-betweens courtesy of Lauback, who offers a photo of a set of parallel fluorescent tubes that once held a lighted sign but holds one no longer, and that presumably will hold one once again—another product of late capitalism which belongs no longer to what’s been, and not yet to what’s coming. Hiden’s digital recapitulations of damaged slide photographs exist in a space between past and present, if not future, but only if you know what you are looking at—although I suppose one could also make up stories about the obliteration of recorded memory and the role that lack and fragmentation plays in the interpretation of history. In that sense, they are interstitial, neither unambiguous visual documents nor outright fictions.

Trevor Reese’s sculptures, I suppose, exist on the trembling interface between settled history and the shorthand with which we capture or configure it, although his de-wheeled hand truck set in concrete in in storage seems to have made a fairly firm transition from practical instrument for moving things to symbolic monument to the moving of materials. His lava rocks interspersed among existing rocks in the outdoor decor feels more like an unnoticed supplement to an architectural element that could be supplemented indefinitely. (One could, for example, put one or more pieces of old-fashioned public ‘plop art’ on top of the rocks.) Reese’s statement to the effect that “My interest in vernacular architecture and folk psychology is influencing my current thought on literal relationships, the different types created by people and things. I find myself navigating an increasing index of interpersonal and ‘mechanical’ connections” is headed in an extremely productive and correct direction, even if I personally can’t quite get what he’s driving at in his concrete (as it were) metaphors.

That’s about as far as I can push this provisional midpoint. There is just under a week for those who happen to read this non-review right away to go confirm, disconfirm or, preferably, correct and expand upon my intuitions.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Analog Revival Considered as an Occasion for a Seriously Misweighted Consideration of Much, Much More Than That

This is structured after the precedent set by George Steiner in his years of writing book reviews for The New Yorker, wherein the reader would learn, five thousand words into an erudite disquisition on the urgent need to rethink the aesthetic and economic legacy of the Dutch Golden Age, that the review was based on a few paragraphs scattered throughout a book that was primarily about how to plant the right kinds of tulips in your garden. See the footnote herein regarding productive digressions, or analysis terminable and interminable, but mostly interminable.

Following the example set explicitly by Jeff Kripal, after I woke this morning feeling that the essay of yesterday could land me in too much controversy to be worth it, instead of deleting that essay, I wrote another one.

Analog Analogies: Or, Revivals in the Age of Digital Reproduction

There is a reason, other than the simple vagaries of students’ notes, why Wittgenstein’s lectures on art and religious belief are collected in the same thin book. Aesthetic experience and religious experience are both marginal cognitive situations, open to divergent interpretation, even though the subject of the one is typically quite different from the subject of the other. (We leave to one side, or bracket as Husserl would have said, whether what Wittgenstein had to say has any meaning or usefulness, which two things are not the same thing.)

I hope at some point to offer an analytical review of Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Comparing Religions, a textbook designed to offer students a useful set of cognitive tools with which to undertake a more comprehensive examination of religious phenomena and religious functions than is usually the case in present-day discussions.

It is indisputably the case that aesthetics and religion always arrive in social contexts, even if the contexts lead people to kill one another over the question of whether the context is part of the prerequisite package.

This was the case long before Bob Dylan’s use of electric instruments brought unfortunately termed cries of betrayal from the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival. It has only gotten worse since then, although the fortunate rise of systematic cynicism beginning with the appropriationist art of the 1980s has meant that the largely silent sneers of the terminally hip at the phenomenon of lack of cool has spread far beyond the coffeehouses of the 1950s to encompass a whole culture in which tolerance is largely a matter of studied indifference to foolish opinions about which we could scarcely care less.

So it is a matter of some fascination to note the re-emergence of formerly hip phenomena in new contexts, and sometimes for reasons very nearly opposite to the reasons they were considered hip the first or second time around. The same thing happens in the history of religions, of course, but we shall not here consider the repeated iterations of the religious experiences sprung from the Burned-Over District of western New York.

Rather, we shall consider Chris Fritton’s scheduled appearance on February 15, 3 - 5 p.m., at Atlanta Printmakers Studio. And we shall consider it because Fritton, former studio director of the WNY Book Arts Center, has undertaken a project titled “The Itinerant Printer” as homage to the revival of craft letterpress printing. Letterpress is back, after having been in full flower some forty years ago (partly because letterpress fonts and presses were being discarded by commercial printers, who saw that nobody cared about the physical texture of printed material in an age when even linotype was being replaced by pasted-up photomechanical printouts). But it is back not because of the easy availability of cheap remains of outdated technologies, but because, says Fritton, of the analog revival, of hands-on maker-machine interaction in the age of digital reproduction. (This is not quite the same as the handcraft revival, in which the machines are a few centuries older and in some cases several millennia older. The machines of what I think of as the analog revival—someone please correct my use of the terminology if I’m delimiting it wrongly*—range in age of invention from the Renaissance up to as little as a half century ago.)

Fritton intends to print postcards using the random cuts of images, idiosyncratic typefaces, and other bric-a-brac that clutter letterpress enterprises, thus “reviving a sense of adventure in printing, along with the analog sharing of information.”

It is somehow utterly appropriate that it is possible to track the details of this hundred-venue crosscountry trek at


*I websearched “the analog revival,” in quotation marks, to confirm my vague impression, and very quickly found myself at the threshold of a 2006 book titled Postphenomenology: A Critical Companion to Ihde, an anthology that revealed a philosophical discussion that had gone on for the better part of a decade and apparently is still be going on in a major way, based on Don Ihde’s Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context, which upon its 1995 publication was blurbed as “a fascinating investigation of the relationships between global culture and technology.” The essays by several authors in Postphenomenology, the critical companion (which is not to be confused with Postphenomenology, the Ihde essays), have to do with, among other things, crittercams (“Compounding Eyes in NatureCultures”), embodied health-care practice, “ontology engines,” and other mixtures of real-life tech and real-life metaphors about machines and the persons who inhabit the embodied minds that interact with them. (And I do mean “inhabit”; as Nobby Brown wrote half a century ago, person is persona. Fifty-page digression about everything from the history of religions to currently fashionable gender studies could follow, but will not.)

Although a glance at the “Don Ihde” entry in Wikipedia reveals a whole body of work of which I was unaware, it is so far distant from the original question of why letterpress printing is newly popular that I decided it was time to stop climbing Mount Analog and come back down to base camp.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

An essay on aesthetics that may or may not clarify why I have written the kind of art criticism I have written for decades now

This essay comes out of left field, but it does not come out of a vacuum, which would be an environment not very hospitable to left field players. It comes in part out of many years of reviewing art that I felt should be defended passionately even though I often had no personal enthusiasm for it, and another trigger was probably James Elkins’ Facebook post about his upcoming lecture in a general series titled “Failure,” a post in which he says, “I’ll be emphasizing things that don’t work (perhaps never did),” in this case with regard to a still-popular aesthetic theory. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is one of the great untrue statements of all time, but it is untrue only because the words themselves don’t quite fit the phenomena they are meant to describe; their meanings are elastic, but they are not meaningless even if they are slippery enough to give rise to Shakespeare’s memorable aphorism. Linguistic philosophy is not much help here, and perhaps never was, so we might as well start out:

The Festival of Insignificance, or, Trying to Get At the Question of Good Bad Art, and a Good Many Other Elusive or Paradoxical Types of Art, Besides

At the moment when Captain Obvious finally grasps why he will sometimes cross the Atlantic to re-experience a completely unimportant painting or video but has long made it a point to avoid some of the world’s greatest works of art, word comes that an English translation will soon be published of Milan Kundera’s new novel titled The Festival of Insignificance.

That has nothing to do with what follows, except that the probably meandering meditation I am about to write has to do with grasping why insignificant things so often seem more worth celebrating than significant ones, even if we accept the greater significance of the things we find uninteresting.

You can argue, and most arguers do, that “there’s no accounting for taste.” This is equivalent to saying that taste is completely a matter of things that happened to us before we were two years old—if we are irresistibly attracted to or repelled by some currently fashionable sophisticated phenomenon (whether in art, fashion, cuisine, music, movies, whatever), it is a logical development of some pleasurable or traumatic simple experience in early childhood. And thus it is not worth analyzing how our later experiences turned this happy or unhappy moment into our present passionately or casually felt aesthetic position, unless it is somehow going to help us clear up our psychological messes.

Most people don’t think it’s equivalent to that; they just think that aesthetic preferences are too weirdly arbitrary to make sense of, even though they can be pushed in one direction or another if you try hard enough, just as most of us learned to like spinach or rutabagas after a childhood spent detesting them.

The “ingrained preferences” versus the “pushing in one direction” don’t seem to be sufficiently analyzed most of the time. And indeed, a good many preferences seem to be ascribable to quite elementary forces: no matter how we tart them up, our transient “likes” actually come about because everyone else is liking it, or the flavor appeals to the hard-wired inclination towards sweet or salty, or the event turns us on sexually for the ordinary evolutionary reasons that drive us towards reproducing our kind.

But there are so many preferences that are not so ascribable. And these too are ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, because everything human is ascribable to combinations of biological and cultural forces, including our responses to gods and angels if such happen to exist. On that level, anything that happens is natural, but some things happen so infrequently, or lead to such dysfunctional or destructive consequences, that we cannot help but call them unnatural in one case or supernatural in another.

This is a very strange definitional detour to take en route to getting at the phenomenon of “art that’s so bad it’s good,” or of completely unimportant artworks we’ll cross oceans to see again, while we’ll make it a point to avoid the world’s greatest art if there is any way of doing so. This reaction varies according to transitory moods, of course (John Berryman’s line of acedia-laden verse about “literature bores me, especially great literature”) but there must be a combination of psychological and neurological underpinnings to this that are also based in the way the world itself works—the objective environmental structures that have resulted in our responses surviving instead of the responses mostly killed off in previous generations of our particular lineage, even though they survive robustly in other particular lineages wending their way through the world.

It would be good if we could get to the point of being able to argue out the dimensions and meaning of that general insight, if we can ever agree that it is an insight; we are always going to have to disagree about whether culture or nature plays the greater role in all this, because sometimes it is one, and sometimes it is the other, even in the same person at almost the same moment.

At a certain level of self-awareness, I can make a rational argument that an artwork has what they used to call “significant form”—that the component parts of the aesthetic machinery function together with enormous and consistent complexity—but that I hate everything about it. I can also confess that although some artworks have no redeeming aesthetic qualities, I love them anyway, because I’m just that kind of guy. (That’s the phenomenon of which we can say we probably don’t want to go there, to use the idiom we apply to “not wanting to delve too deeply into causation in this particular case.” See also: the general problem of “fast and slow thinking,” and why there are cases in which there is no point in trying to swap one for the other, although it is worth considering why there is no point in doing so.)

Hence it would be really interesting to approach the development or refinement of aesthetic taste in terms of expanding the range of consistent aesthetic operations to which we respond positively. (Historically it has been a matter of replacing one set of preferred operations with another, or narrowing the number of operations to which we respond, instead of learning new ways of evaluating the success of the operations. This is not a good thing, in my view. Neither is the unreflective assumption that there is no way to evaluate sets of operations and one set is as good as another. Indoctrination and indifferent relativism both suck.) There are an immense number of consistent operations, and it is what allows us to argue over whether a graffiti wall is a good one or a bad one at the same time that we argue over whether an example of Japanese calligraphy is successful or unsuccessful, or over why some kitsch is unendurably awful on all fronts while other kitsch has such intriguing underlying compositional elements that it is actually worth keeping around us in spite of being appallingly sentimental or exploitative of stereotypes. (In such cases we do have to keep our wits about us to avoid being pulled helplessly into the responses to which evolution predisposes us. Incidentally, it is interesting that in this year’s lingo we would probably just say “because evolution,” which is a locution that is used both for things that are too obvious to be worth spelling out and things that are too complicated to spell out without completely losing your train of thought.)

E. H. Gombrich floundered around on the edges of such questions, but that was an awfully long time ago, and the floundering was immense. The few books that have been written more recently on such problems of causation, or even of straightening out our systematically misleading terminology and categories for such problems, have been as unreadable, and mostly as wrongheaded, as this essay most likely is.

But hey, I had to write it anyway.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

You say I am repeating something I have said before. I shall say it again. Shall I say it again?

Nails and Hammers and Unmixed Metaphors

Some time ago, when I was telling a friend about the neuroscience students who were looking at Bethany Collins’ blackboard-like panel of white-lettered words breaking apart and collecting into piles of letters, which reminded them of how memory and language-formation function, he said, “To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” to which I retorted. “No, no, they got it! That was why I put it in the ‘From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again’ show! —because it wasn’t just about the political concepts in the words, it was about how the concepts form and fall apart in our minds and our societies!”

Actually, I didn’t say much beyond “No, no, they got it!” but we all know about pensées de l’escalier. (Or “That was what I shoulda said.”)

I so, however, keep having new and ever more horrifying realizations of how we actually do interpret the whole world in terms of the tools we have with which to interpret it; more accurately, we interpret and judge other people’s tools in terms of the ones we know how to use, and we interpret other people’s interpretations in terms of the tools we know how to use.

The computational model of consciousness is a case in point. Anyone who studies humankind’s cultural creations realizes that there is a much more complex set of responses to the environment than pure computation, but how germane to actual consciousness are the complex responses? We are, after all, getting better at creating systems like Siri in which algorithms mimic at least the standard tropes for reacting to reports of others’ emotions and sensations, from pain and hunger to fear and sexual desire. (“I am sorry to hear that. I am sad that there is nothing I can do to improve your situation.”)

So a good many everyday behavioral or pragmatic tools for navigating existence are purely mechanical, a more sophisticated form of “How are you?” “Fine, thanks, how are you?” “Fine, thanks.” or “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” And as the linguistic philosophers pondered three-quarters of a century ago, it is quite possible for the “Fine” exchange to contain not a syllable of accuracy concerning the respondents’ inner emotional or physical condition, since it exists for other purposes than information.

But we end up, vis-à-vis such questions as the computational model of consciousness, in messy issues of what it means to have a body or to be a body and what it would mean not to be a body or to exist as a conscious being without having a body. And people whose particular emotions and mental skills lead them to acquire expertise in one academic field are likely to have a completely different way of putting the problem into words, or of understanding the problem intuitively, from those whose expertise is formed from different skill sets.

In principle, we should all be able to comprehend what it would mean to understand a problem using a different set of acquired skills. But because our comprehension of that question is partially determined by who we are as embodied beings with a personal history, we don’t even understand what it is we don’t understand, as I have quoted so often from The Wisdom of Charlie Brown.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In between the times, or is it in between the physical and the fictional and the virtual spaces? watch this space for developments, I hope

Neither Here Nor There: An Exceptionally Hasty Note on the Concept of Between-ness

I have been unable to visit the exhibition at Atlanta’s Gallery 72 titled “Middle,” but I have read the curator’s statement (or an extract from it in the press release) by Candice Greathouse that states, “The works included in this exhibition serve as a visual dialogue of ideas that investigate notions of this middleness - inbetweenness and potentiality through material and process. The artists and works featured in this exhibition represent the middle through a variety of strategies conceptually and aesthetically. They resist concrete categorization and definition, offering instead a provoking ambiguity that prolongs and redefines the ‘middle’.”

Receipt of this press release happened to coincide with arrival of my essay “Oscillations and Interstices” written for the catalogue of the “Oscillations” show at Steffen Thomas Museum of Art a year ago.

This has got me to thinking about the shifts in the concepts of in-between-ness from Zwischenheit to Zwischenzeit in German (the one just means “the meantime” as in “in the meantime” while the other means the condition of “in-between-ness”) and what the existentialists of fifty years ago made of the former. The meantime became a literal “time between,” Martin Heidegger’s “time of the No-More of the god that has fled and the Not-Yet of the god that is coming.” Less polytheistically, “the time between” implied a moment of fundamental historical change, a transitional moment in which no one could feel at home: “each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited chidren, to whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies in the familiar Leishman-Spender translation).

It feels like we are in the condition of between-ness but no longer in the time between; we have crossed some kind of dividing line, and the no-longer is receding into a rapidly aging history while the not-yet is rapidly becoming the already-here. (“The future is already here, but is unevenly distributed.”--William Gibson)

I have no time (no pun intended) to expand upon these thoughts at the moment.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kandinsky in Milwaukee

And Kandinsky in Milwaukee in the Twenty-First Century

Jerry Cullum

Curator Brady Roberts concludes the catalogue of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Kandinsky retrospective with an essay on “Kandinsky in the 21st Century,” in which he provides an insightful survey of those few contemporary artists who acknowledge a vital interest in Kandinsky, and explores some of the reasons for contemporary skepticism about Kandinsky’s accomplishments.


Julie Mehretu, Matthew Ritchie, and Carroll Dunham are among the artists who have taken an interest in Kandinsky’s belief in a synthesis of art, science, and culture in the anthropological sense of the word (i.e., the overall conceptual assumptions underlying what sociology calls “society”). None of them have imitated Kandinsky’s visual approaches (there is an entire body of American painting from the 1930s and 1940s that openly draws its inspiration from Kandinsky’s composition and palette, but that is a separate, obscurely historic topic).

What irrefutably separates these artists from Kandinsky is the level of optimism that accompanied his quest for a scientific basis for art. When he wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art that “When we remember that spiritual experience is quickening, that positive science, the firmest basis of human thought, is tottering, that dissolution of matter is imminent, we have hope that the hour of pure composition is not far away,” he meant that everything in the sciences tended towards the destruction of the bases on which the nineteenth century formed its arrogant certitudes: physics was discovering the basis in immaterial-seeming energy of a material world that was itself only an instance of fugitive moments of forms of energies consolidating (we might remember here that Kandinsky’s Russian Orthodox faith was based on the notion that matter itself is sustained by the “divine energies”); in the investigations of the new psychology, the mind was proving to be full of immaterial-seeming energies that belied the assumption that its underpinnings were open to the simple deductions of logical reasoning; and the cultural basis of world civilizations, plural, was turning out to be open to an investigation that assumed the value of European accomplishments but did not thereby devalue the discoveries of cultures that Europe found alien. Surely, given these developments undercutting belief in a unilateral progress towards an affirmation of a materialist rationality as the highest accomplishment of human evolution, the expectation of a Great Utopia was not intrinsically unreasonable.


None of these lines of thought turned out as expected. The underpinnings of culture turned out to be undecideable; is culture an arbitrary construct, or is it intrinsically itself constructed by a biologically grounded individual psychology that leads human beings to make the same mistakes over and over again, no matter how hard they try to impose a logical order on a collective behavior that is grounded in instincts instilled by genetic structure? Is there any way of deciding whether mathematics is the inbuilt order of the entire material universe, or itself only a complicated human construct that gives us useful clues as to how to manipulate the universe’s structure, thus giving rise to technology? Is there such a fundamental disjuncture between the underlying structure of nature and the underlying structure of culture that there is no underlying unity between the two, or does nature trump culture every time, even if culture is transforming nature at such an unparalleled rate that culture can’t quite predict what nature is going to do to it?

In other words, the culturally created artifice of civilization, and the biological basis of human behavior, and the processes of the natural world have all turned out to be more unpredictably related than seemed to be the case in the early twentieth century. That there is an underlying unifying order seems indisputable; the dispute is over the question of what that unifying order is, and whether human beings are fundamentally incapable of knowing it even when they think they know all there is to know about it. Are we a self-deceptive species that is very, very good at thinking that the positive effects of imaginary solutions to real problems demonstrate that the solutions themselves must be real?

That’s the kind of thing that artists in search of a Gesamtkunstwerk grapple with these days, and none of these questions instill a sense of confidence in the possibility of final solutions beyond the grim types of alteration of the course of history with which those words are now inextricably associated. We can change the world, but the extent to which we can explain it remains in doubt.

Hence artists like Mehretu and Ritchie and Dunham deal in paradox, parody, and outright fiction. Their maps include representations of all the spaces that fall off the map.

It is worth contemplating the more or less concurrent appearance of two books that relate human culture to its unconscious assumptions about nature (this abrupt digression is going to come back to “Kandinsky in the 21st Century” in the next paragraph): Yi-fu Tuan’s Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape and Alastair Bonnett’s book on anomalously defined spaces—but what is that book called, anyway? It seems to have begun life in the United Kingdom as Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us About the World, and morphed en route to the United States of America into a textually identical book called Unruly Spaces: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. The transmutation of the title itself indicates the cultural differences and prior expectations that underpin human understanding of something as solid as the ground beneath their feet (and/or the large quantity of water that surrounds it).

Kandinsky’s approach to art assumed that the symbols of culture could be further refined into mathematical and geometric relationships united to the emotions by the colors through which these relationships were presented on a picture plane. Art in the twentieth century began as representation of landscape and its relationship to human society and the emotions surrounding that society; it had the capacity to become a visual tool for understanding the depths of those relationships by discarding the representation of their surfaces.

I have long since departed completely from Brady Roberts’ concise essay, which goes more or less directly from a discussion of the artists who acknowledge Kandinsky’s influence to all those artists who consider Kandinsky hopelessly quaint, but consider supremely relevant Marcel Duchamp’s cynical embrace of the primacy of concepts and the superiority of ideas over “retinal art.”

Well, maybe Duchamp exalts the concept over the evidence appearing on the retina. The truly strange thing is that Duchamp actually returns us to the material world; he gives us not ideas but things and the fictions we impose upon them. (William Carlos Williams’ maxim “no ideas but in things” was being systematically misunderstood by poets in roughly the same decades that everyone, including Duchamp, was confused about what Duchamp’s work really implied. Today we have Object Oriented Ontology to get us all muddled up about Things once again, as though Francis Ponge’s poems had never existed, or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels, for that matter—but let’s stick with Duchamp and Kandinsky, shall we?)

Turn a urinal or a bottle rack around and they become gorgeously abstract sculptures instead of utilitarian objects. Put a punning title on a realistic sculpture of a window and you have the marriage of language with the physical world that has existed since Adam mythically named the animals. Put a peephole in a door that shows you a deeply symbolic but literally disturbing diorama, and you have a piece of representational art that has even more cultural history encoded in it than the most redolent of nineteenth-century history paintings. Everything in Duchamp returns us to the retinal; he just asks the questions about the retinal that Matisse didn’t want us to ask, preferring that art be regarded as a comfortable armchair. The eye is part of the mind, and vice versa. We see because we think because we see.

We are back to Kandinsky’s conceptual gropings after a Total Work of Art. The only difference is that we are more resigned to the possibility that there is no totality; and it is worth asking whether we have given up on the possibility a little too soon.

How we frame a question typically predetermines the answer; the problem is framing it at all, to begin with, and leaving the frame open enough to admit the possibility that the most adequate answer presupposes a frame we didn’t suspect.

I shall not burden this essay’s readers with my probably irrelevant allegory based on the dysfunctional aspects of the landscaped space leading into Santiago Calatrava’s amazing addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and another one based on the question of whether Kandinsky will look different when approached via the architecture of a former Federal Post Office built in the era of the stripped-classical transmutation of Art Deco. Probably not; the rigorous neutrality of gallery spaces in most of these differently conceived museums is designed to magick away all the spectacular differences of architectural volume that visitors have just experienced in the process of getting to those bland variations on the white cube.

Galleries painted in the rainbow tones of Munich’s Lenbachhaus, now—such spaces raise questions about context of which Kandinsky would doubtless have approved. He might even have designed a questionnaire to make us aware of the differences. But in fact those spaces (in the institution that co-organized the 2009 Kandinsky retrospective) are only meant to evoke the historical epoch in which the paintings installed in them were created. That they shock us into a different mode of awareness is largely a fortunate accident.

Kandinsky is still the artist who thought about the meaning of fortunate accidents and pondered ways of making us aware of the meaning of them.

And that is what his legacy to the 21st century ought to be, regardless of what his legacy may be at present.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kandinsky in Nashville

This is an almost absurdly personal approach to a retrospective exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky that I would recommend to anyone who is able to make the trip to what for many is an out of the way destination, even if it has apparently been declared this year’s “It” city for up-and-coming cultural scenes in the U.S.A.

The exhibition combines a hundred or so significant works and important related objects from the Pompidou Center with a smaller number of significant context-setting pieces from American museums, and more than holds its own against the 2009 retrospective staged by the Lenbachhaus, the Pompidou Center and the Guggenheim.

The catalogue and the audio guide (even the audio guide, for once!) provide a usefully condensed timeline of Kandinsky’s passionate multidisciplinary investigations and his repeated run-ins with the historical traumas of the twentieth century as well as with its spiritual and intellectual challenges. Skimming over this information, I realized that a substantial number of topics for which I have accumulated bibliographic sources are in fact central to Kandinsky’s development as a human being and quite likely as a painter as well.

This essay is teasingly vague on several topics and ludicrously specific on others—especially a phrase that was too good not to quote—because it has been written off the top of my head, partly because it would take too long to locate my copies of the relevant books and partly because I don’t remember where to find some key essays—for example, the analysis of how an experimental method of teaching small children about shapes and colors may have influenced the invention of abstract painting.

At twenty-five hundred words it is roughly at the maximum attention span of the majority of likely readers, even without further amplification of its highly condensed allusions.

Jerry Cullum, October 1, 2014

Rethinking Kandinsky: On the occasion of “Kandinsky: A Retrospective,” organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Centre Georges Pompidou, exhibited in Milwaukee June 5 - September 1 2014 and also exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (September 26, 2014 - January 4, 2015)

“Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years” was the subject of the first exhibition review I ever wrote, for the May/June 1984 issue of Art Papers. More accurately, I wrote an art historical essay about neglected aspects of Kandinsky’s Russian and Bauhaus years, including a question about what impact his friendship with the composer Thomas de Hartmann had on him.

I still don’t know the answer to that question, and am not sure if anyone does. The answer could have much to do with his turn to a paradoxical blend of geometric exactitude and seductively painterly ways of rendering the hard-edged geometry. It might, however, not.

That, however, is a fairly esoteric concern, in all senses of the words. It is difficult enough to make sense of the three major phases of Kandinsky’s artistic life, within which the collaboration and ongoing friendship with Thomas de Hartmann is a significant footnote, but nevertheless a footnote.

I would like to try to make a little more sense of the paintings and prints, of which almost a hundred are included in the Milwaukee-Nashville retrospective, than I tried to make in that long-ago piece of intellectual history. I am, however, going to remain heavily focused on why Kandinsky would have felt impelled to paint what he did, rather than on what he painted, which is of course the primary focus of the exhibition.

Kandinsky in Munich

Or, actually, Kandinsky in Russia and then in Munich. Peg Weiss was right a generation ago when she wrote that not enough attention had been paid to what motivated and influenced Kandinsky in the pivotal pre-Munich years 1886-1896. What motivates Kandinsky to abandon a decade of successful studies in law, turn down the offer of a lecturership in Dorpat (Tartu, Estonia, then part of Russia), and take off for Munich to study painting?

We probably need to know more about Kandinsky’s years pre-law, 1866-1886...these are the years in Russia at large when hard-core materialism challenges Orthodox faith (with monastic spiritual fathers, startzy. trying to adapt old practices to present-day realities, in moves ranging from reform of monastic institutions to revival of forms of psychophysical meditation); cf. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Liberal reform is stopped in its tracks by the radicals’ assassination of Alexander II and the determination of his successor to undo his father’s political program and to subject the minority peoples of the Empire to ruthless russification. It is impossible for Russian intellectuals to remain unaware that Germany’s very different push towards industrial growth and intellectual respectability has given birth to philosophical and artistic movements of which neither Tsar nor Kaiser would approve, but which seemed harbingers of a new and almost unimaginable age of post-materialist spiritual ferment.

So however it happened, off goes Kandinsky in quest of ways of embodying a new spiritual era and translating it into paint. And he soon finds himself collaborating with composers and libretto writers on multidisciplinary art works in addition to innovative landscapes and portraits, having joined his life in the meantime with a Theosophy-inclined painter named Gabriele Münter, whose works from Milwaukee’s permanent collection are included in this contextualizing retrospective.

Back in the mid-1980s, Peg Weiss pooh-poohed Sixten Ringbom’s hypothesis in The Sounding Cosmos that H. P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical pictures of aura-like “thought forms” were influences on Kandinsky’s development of abstraction. Abstraction was in the air, in ways we have learned more about in recent years; experimental childhood education employed basic geometric shapes in distinct primary colors, and Jugendstil evolved on the Continent in the wake of such earlier speculations as John Ruskin’s links between the curvatures of Gothic architecture and the specific shapes formed by the leaves of water plants. Nature and culture appeared to be inextricably intertwined or entangled; but nobody quite knew why, or how.

By 1896 it seemed important to investigate the question, not just in what seemed to be a fatally flawed European culture, but in every culture on a suddenly surprising earth—where discontented scions of Europe had encountered religions and rituals that seemed to embody not benighted ignorance but a species of wisdom never suspected by their blinkered local cultures. The marriage of European analytical practice and non-European intuitive syntheses seemed to be the key to the resolution of the persistent and crippling cultural incertitude of the nineteenth century.

What appeared certain to the spiritual revolutionaries who advocated a fundamentally new art was that the simple-minded mechanistic materialism of the nineteenth century simply did not take into account many of the organic variables of life and art alike. The German Romantics and their successors had tried to (to quote Tamsin Shaw’s critique of Darrin M. McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius, in the October 9, 2014 New York Review of Books) “clarify the relationship between mind and world.” The original speculations of transcendental idealism had not held up against the assaults of hardheadedly reductionist rationalism; the new generation was looking for evidence of just how color, sound, and form might be related to one another and to concealed interconnections between the human spirit and the world in which the spirit operated.

Kandinsky, sharing in the hope that a “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk) might be based on knowledge of how those relationships operated, went on to hope that the deep interconnections between independently developed cultures might also be revealed by intelligent juxtapositions of photographs in books and magazines. “We will put,” he proposed in 1911 to his friend Franz Marc, “...a Chinese work next to a Rousseau, a popular image next to a Picasso and many other things of the same kind!” This became 1912’s single-issue project The Blue Rider Almanac, represented in this retrospective by Kandinsky’s saint-infused study for its cover. (St. George’s horse and lance became a leitmotiv for Kandinsky...a fact that might lead us into an extended meditation on the many cross-cultural identities of St. George, whose myths and meanings change substantially in their geographic diffusion from England to the Eastern Mediterranean and the farther reaches of the Caucasus Mountains. But again, we don’t know how much Kandinsky knew, and when if at all he knew it.) At this point, he produces his first completely abstract painting. He also publishes his book On the Spiritual in Art, productively reflecting the ambiguity between “mind” and “spirit” in the German philosophy of Geist, which conflates a range of meanings that English vocabulary and thought keeps rigorously separate.

Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years

All of this multinational, cross-cultural ferment in Munich and elsewhere comes to an abrupt and unanticipated halt in 1914, when friends are forced to leave for home at best and sign up for service in competing armies at worst. Franz Marc, represented in this retrospective by a large, memorable 1911 painting of horses, goes from psychological speculations on the meanings of colors and informed studies of the world’s antiquities in German ethnographic museum to death on the battlefront in 1916. Kandinsky returns to Russia in that year after an extended residence in Switzerland, meets and marries the young woman who remained his wife until his death in 1944, and continues to alternate between a loosely curving, semi-geometric abstraction and a lushly expressionistic rendering of figure and landscape.

Russian artists in this same time frame have been busy devising a different relationship between geometry and the human condition. Liubov Popova travels in Russian Central Asia looking at mosaic tiles and architecture at the same time that Kandinsky develops his original interest in the all-over wall decoration of Russian peasant houses, and her contemporaries develop a form of geometric reduction intended to displace traditional painting once and for all. Malevich’s Black Square in 1915’s “0,10” exhibition hangs in the place traditionally reserved for the family religious icons.

Kandinsky collides with the Constructivists when the Revolution happens, and finds himself proposing modes of artistic education and research that eventually conclude in a 1921 proposal for a Department of Physio-psychology and Fine Arts at the newly founded Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences. Still suspected of unacceptably Romantic views about matter and spirit, he happily accepts Walter Gropius’ invitation to visit Berlin at Christmas 1921, and by June 1922 has moved to Weimar to teach at the newly founded Bauhaus.

This is where Kandinsky’s Gesamtkunstwerk collaborations in Munich with Thomas de Hartmann and friendship with Alexander de Salzmann raise interesting and probably unanswerable questions. The same year that Kandinsky returned to Russia, de Hartmann and de Salzmann met and became disciples of George Gurdjieff, whose claims to possess the multidisciplinary teachings of Central Asian spiritual traditions offered what seemed to be definitive answers to the questions that had bedeviled both Kandinsky and de Hartmann during their Munich years. Literally following Gurdjieff through a chaotically revolutionary Russia and secessionist Caucasus to Constantinople and on to France, de Hartmann became Gurdjieff’s collaborator on a series of piano compositions based on what Gurdjieff claimed were Central Asian liturgical melodies that formed the basis of “objective music,” just as the rigorously mathematical relationships of sacred geometry formed an “objective art.”

Kandinsky encounters a different version of geometry and notions of “glass cathedrals” at the Bauhaus, in an atmosphere that seems poised midway between the Gesamtkunstwerk of his prewar years and the marriage between fine and applied arts he found in the Constructivist art of the Russian Revolution. Though they are not included in this retrospective, in 1921 Kandinsky produced some remarkable geometric designs for porcelain cups and saucers that look like harbingers of his Bauhaus-era paintings. His Constructivist colleagues were producing even more useful objects with a starker form of geometry, whereas Kandinsky’s color scheme and combination of shapes sometimes seems playful to the point of presaging the biomorphic paintings of his Paris years, then over a decade in the future.

And yet, and yet.... On White II comes as a shock regardless of how closely you study the preceding years’ paintings. Later paintings, most notably Yellow Red Blue, which combine an intense painterliness with hard-edged geometric forms, mark a departure so unexpected that one looks for explanations that mostly aren’t there.

Compared with the fluidity of the large-scale wall murals from 1922 that are replicated in a gallery space that appears in this retrospective, these Bauhaus paintings of 1922 (the date of the preliminary study that appears in this show) and 1925 appear to operate by different rules altogether. These are the years in which de Hartmann was most enraptured by the Gurdjieff Work to which he remained loyal even after his departure from discipleship in 1929. But there is apparently not a shred of evidence that Kandinsky knew anything about the Work, and by the time he had renewed a face to face friendship with de Hartmann and was living in the same city as Gurdjieff, in the 1930s and early 1940s, he had moved on to a biomorphic style of abstraction that seems to owe more to illustrations of creatures seen through microscopes than to the precise angles of mystical mathematics.

So my hypothesis in the 1984 essay may well have been total nonsense. But I wonder.

Kandinsky in Paris

What is certain is that by the time in 1933 that Kandinsky abandons the newly proclaimed Nazi Germany for Paris, he has lost any interest in dramatic personal transformations; he turns down offers to emigrate to the United States and to Japan, and repeats his disinclination to pull up roots when it seems more consequential, after the German occupation of Paris in 1940. In spite of having had all his paintings removed from German museums as “degenerate art” three years earlier, he continues not only to paint, but to stage officially forbidden solo exhibitions in the back rooms of his Paris gallery. The occupation is headed by admirers of French culture and connoisseurs of art, and despite the brutal extermination of Resistance networks, the lower echelons of occupation enforcers seem to have practiced silent tolerance of nonpolitical cultural aberrations—Hitler, after all, was on record as having said something to the effect of “Let the French be as decadent as they want to be. It will keep them from ever again winning a war against us!”

The retrospective exhibition gives us three of his final paintings and his two final watercolors (produced in 1944 after he had given up easel painting a year earlier in the face of old age and persistent shortages of materials). The paintings evince a combination of seriousness and lightheartedness, but the watercolors are filled with a sense of outright play that bespeaks a combination of acceptance with curious exploration. Kandinsky appears to have achieved the level of internal balance that Reciprocal Accord of 1942 is still in the process of keeping in tension.

Thinking of the many spiritual as well as scientific disciplines with which he might well have remained in dialogue throughout his lifetime, I still wonder.

Counterforces and Other Little Jokes